Art Review: Catalog Entry for Ribera painting

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Catalog Entry for
Jusepe de Ribera,
The Holy Family with
Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria

Jusepe de Ribera, The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria (1648, oil on canvas, 82½ x 60¾ in. [209.6 x 154.3 cm]).  New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria.  Jusepe de Ribera (Játiva [Valencia], Spain 1591 – 1652 Naples), Rome ca. 1606; Parma ca. 1611; Naples 1616–1652.  Signed and dated lower right on side of bench upon which Mary sits: “Jusepe de Ribera, español, accadamico [] F. 1648.”  Oil on canvas, 82½ x 60¾ in. (209.6 x 154.3 cm).  Restored in 1979.  Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1934, 34.73.

In a painting of the Holy Family, preceding the date of 1648, Jusepe de Ribera proudly affixed his signature as a Spaniard and Academy member to the end of the stone bench supporting Mary. Other than the secure facts of its dating and creator, little is known with certainty about the history and hence function of the work. A trail of information starts much later in its life with the murky circumstances of its acquisition in Genoa by a French art dealer. Much, however, can still be gleaned from its date, subject matter and physical characteristics.

Pictured on a canvas too large to be handled by one person and hence unlikely to have been intended for private individual devotion, the Virgin Mary holds the Christ child on her lap while Saint Catherine of Alexandria brushes her left cheek against the dorsal surface of the baby’s right hand. Mary’s mother Saint Anne proffers a rose to her daughter and Saint Joseph gazes at the viewer, as does the Madonna. A sewing basket in the lower right corner adds a note of tranquil domesticity, and the absence of mystical haloes renders the scene more conducive to viewers’ imagining themselves participating in the tender adoration of the child on his mother’s lap.

For the elderly participants who frame the central action, Ribera chose tenebristically dark colors, effectively keeping Anne and Joseph in the background. By bathing in bright light the two young women and baby, and clothing them in colorful garments, he brought them forward, directing the audience’s attention to the spiritual center of the composition.

Those viewers were likely to have been members of a wealthy family for whom the painting was created and guests who joined them in their private quarters, where the canvas would have been displayed. In keeping with the mid-sixteenth-century Council of Trent’s dictates, the subject matter chosen and the manner in which it was presented encouraged identification with, and emulation of, the holy personages depicted. Catherine would have provided an opportunity to meditate on her “admirable” qualities of “wisdom,” “eloquence,” “constancy,” “cleanness of chastity” and “privileged dignity.”

Primarily a holy family scene into which Ribera inserted Catherine, the painting presents an Alexandrian princess and Christian convert to whom Christ appeared when her faith was severely tested. Rather than the usual iconography of this saint’s mystical marriage to Christ–in which she is shown receiving a ring from the infant Jesus, here it’s the baby in a passive position, receiving Catherine’s tender adoration.

A popular source of saints’ stories, The Golden Legend left vague the exact content of Catherine’s visions, the second of which occurred during a twelve-day imprisonment without food. In her efforts to convert a ruling emperor to Christianity, Catherine so impressed him with erudite arguments that stumped fifty of his smartest philosophers, that he proposed marriage. When she explained that “He [Christ] is my God, my lover, my shepherd, and my one and only spouse,” the emperor became so enraged that he ordered her jailed. When starvation didn’t shake her faith, he sentenced her to be tortured to death across four spiked wheels, pieces of which later became the symbol of her martyrdom.

Those references to lover and spouse probably contributed to the subsequent myth of Catherine’s dream of the Christ child held by Mary, initially refusing to accept her as his servant because she was insufficiently beautiful, but much later–after Catherine spent time in the desert learning about the Christian faith from a hermit and then being baptized–Christ returned and placed a ring on the future martyr’s finger.

In a related version, also not in The Golden Legend but perhaps a product of the Counter-Reformation’s promotion of images as devotional aids, said hermit gifted Catherine with a picture of the Madonna and Child. Fervent prayers brought the Alexandrian princess a vision of the face of Christ turning toward her and later, when her faith had grown even stronger, Catherine envisioned Christ’s placing a ring on her finger. In a parallel fashion, Ribera created an image that invited similar spiritual engagement.

Techniques and Materials
The large oil-on-canvas painting has suffered damage. Before a 1979 restoration, there was a great deal of paint loss in the light-colored flesh tones. Additionally, what today looks like a well-preserved ultramarine cloak was back then a surface of disconnected flecks of paint before (one assumes) paint consolidation and in-painting. The canvas weave is evident below most of the paint, possibly a result of a relining in the early nineteenth century.

In this late work, Ribera combined the tenebristic effects of his earlier Roman style with a classical mode already apparent in the previous decade, perhaps inspired by contemporary artists Guido Reni, Domenichino, Lanfranco and Artemisia Gentileschi who–settling in Naples during those years–brought with them a classical way of painting. Likewise, the expansion of Ribera’s palette from muted earth colors to vibrant and varied hues might reflect the renewal of interest in Venetian art that spread across Italy during the 1630s.

The painting is imbued with a tenderness that suffuses the interactions among all the actors. Catherine’s intense and private adoration of the Christ child evokes in the baby enjoyment of, and fascination with, her behavior (evident by the slightly upturned left corner of his mouth). St. Anne smiles lovingly as she offers her daughter a rose that perhaps with its many equidistant thorns (curiously confined to only one side of the stem) prefigures the Passion with its crown of thorns. Mary and Joseph knowingly acknowledge visitors with ineffable stares that grasp and hold the viewer’s gaze on Catherine’s actions.

Evident from early on, Ribera’s determination to capture and convey affect evolved into an exceptional ability to paint deeply emotional sacred (and other) pictures well suited for the post-Tridentine precepts of his time. Whether patron-driven or expressive of a personal predisposition, that aspect of his work forever marked him as different from others. The Met’s Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria reflects the culture whence it springs but also the mastery of its creator.

Nothing is known about the painting before the nineteenth century when Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun acquired it, but sometime after around 1648 when it left the artist’s studio in Naples as an object of religious devotion, it became an object of art.

An unsigned typewritten note in its curatorial file suggests that after Napoleon’s invasion of Italy and his subsequent secularization of churches, the painting became available and ended up in a Genoese collection either as a purchase or spoil of war. It was picked up in Italy by Le Brun in 1807/08 with the intention of bringing it back to Paris to sell, either purchased from its Genoese owner or obtained illegally elsewhere and given a false provenance. Its exclusion from both Giacomo Brusco’s Description des beautes de Genes (1781) and Carlo Giuseppe Ratti’s Descrizione di Genova (1780) strongly suggests that the painting wasn’t commissioned for a Genoese church. A signed and dated work of this caliber was unlikely to have been missed by either writer.

Wherever and however it was acquired, it ended up in France where artist and art dealer Le Brun soon flipped it in an “unverified” Paris sale. By 1824 it resided in the collection of Sir Thomas Baring, a connoisseur and collector of fine art who served in the British government for many years. The painting remained in the Baring family until December 12, 1918, when it was sold at Christie’s in London, to P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., a well-established dealer and gallery founded in 1767.

Colnaghi held the painting till it came into the possession of Henry George Charles Lascelles, of royal heritage like the previous noncommercial owners. When the painting appeared on the market again in 1934 at Arnold Seligmann, Rey & Co., Inc. (New York and Paris), it was bought by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though Ribera spent his entire working life in Italy, because he was Spanish born this painting is displayed in a gallery of Spanish art.


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